Diet for Anxiety
by Sue Kira, Naturopath & Clinical Nutritionist
– Allergies, intolerances, sensitivities and anxiety
– Hormone imbalances and anxiety
– Blood sugar imbalances can create anxiety
– Metabolic disorders such as pyrrole can affect anxiety
– Heavy metal toxicity and anxiety
– Amino acids to treat anxiety
– Gut health and anxiety
– Other factors that can contribute to anxiety
I still remember my 21st birthday party, feeling so sick in the bathroom, that I couldn’t come out until the party was over. At the time, I didn’t know that I was having an anxiety attack. I just felt too terrible to even think, yet it seemed so strange that I felt totally fine when everyone left.
From that point on, I knew that I had to feel in control of my life and I found ways to make that happen. I made sure I was organised and not rushed, prepared well in advance for exams and gave myself the ‘what’s the worst thing that can happen’ speech, which helped me to let go of attachment to outcomes.
I also realised that too much sugar and stimulating carbs in my diet would create blood sugar drops which would exacerbate anxiety. Through trial and error, I changed my diet so my carbs came from vegies.
Essentially it was about looking after myself, preparing, not rushing and taking control of my life, rather than letting life control me.
Certain situations would still appear to take this ‘controlled feeling’ away from me, like exams, a wedding or a new job, but in most cases I managed to cope quite well with situations.
But this is not always the case for other sufferers of anxiety. Anyone who doesn’t suffer from anxiety cannot really understand the irrational way of thinking and feeling that comes over the anxiety sufferer.
Situational anxiety is one thing, but for some, anxiety can be a daily occurrence with no apparent reason. This is the type of anxiety that I have frequently seen in clinic over the years. There are a multitude of contributing factors to anxiety, and in this article I cover many food and nutrient related factors, which may help if you suffer from anxiety.
It’s important to realise that there are many little things that you can do to support yourself. And even if your anxiety is situational, then supporting your body with the right nutrients can certainly help. Always see a doctor if you suffer anxiety to see if you can be assisted by medical intervention.
Tryptophan is a calming (serotonin precursor) amino acid which can be found in good quantities in turkey. Tryptophan can also be found in smaller quantities in chicken, bananas, soy, nuts, peanut butter, sesame seeds and prunes.
B vitamin foods such as beef, pork, chicken, leafy greens, legumes, oranges and other citrus fruits, rice, nuts and eggs.
Omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) found in fattyfish such as salmon, tuna, trout, herring, mackerel, anchovies and sardines, have been shown to help support mood.
Protein which break down to amino acids and help to stimulate the production of the brain chemicals nor-epinephrine and dopamine. These, along with serotonin, are neurotransmitters that carry impulses between nerve cells. Higher levels of these chemical messengers have been shown to improve anxiety. Good sources of protein include coconut yogurt, fish, meats, poultry, eggs, nuts, beans, soy products and lentils.
There are many substances that can make anxiety worse and if avoided, can help to reduce anxiety levels. These include caffeine drinks, processed foods, sugar, artificial additives, gluten, dairy, nitrates in foods such as ham, bacon and other smallgoods, and alcohol.
Although many think of alcohol as a calming substance, it can rob your body of the very vitamins needed to control anxiety, such as the B group of vitamins.
Vitamin and minerals can make or break anxiety. Amazing!
Nutritional deficiencies such as B vitamins (especially B6 and B12), magnesium, calcium, potassium, vitamin C deficiency, and low levels of vitamin D and iron can all contribute to and intensify anxiety symptoms.
These deficiencies can be caused by low intake, poor absorption, metabolic disorders and/or stress, so then the body requires higher amounts of these nutrients.
Many of my clients with anxiety had low levels of various nutrients. When corrected, their anxiety levels dropped significantly.
Stress for example (some of which may come from anxiety) sucks up huge amounts of magnesium, B vitamins and vitamin C. Infections use up lots of iron and vitamin D. If you don’t have time to get out into the sun or hold back because of a fear of skin cancer, then you possibly won’t get a necessary top up of vitamin D. Moderate outdoor activity with adequate protection away from the heat of the day can be beneficial.
Specific ratios of vitamins and minerals are required for balanced mental, emotional and physical health and wellbeing. If your vitamin and mineral requirements are higher than what food can offer, you will need the help of a qualified health practitioner versed in this area of expertise.
It is best not to self-prescribe otherwise other imbalances can be created. Also, some synthetic vitamins can cause more trouble than benefits.
It’s important to note that both personally and in clinic, I have found that some vitamins, especially Vitamin B6, which often reduces anxiety for many, can make it worse or even trigger anxiety for some people who do not normally take it each day.
Speak with your practitioner if you have experienced an increase in anxiety after starting a supplement regime. This is where the use of foods to boost nutrients can be beneficial. However, a strong therapeutic approach is sometimes initially needed to get the ball rolling in the right direction.
A good diet, specifically for anxiety and any other imbalances you may have, can go a long way to help you feel calmer. Please get advice from your health provider before making any changes.
Allergies, intolerances, sensitivities and anxiety
There are many common food and substance allergies that can have an influence on anxiety, such as food colourings, preservatives, gluten or dairy intolerance or other allergies.
Food sensitivities that are not allergies can also be a problem, such as being sensitive to sugar, caffeine or salicylates. Click for more information about allergies and intolerances.
If you feel that you may have an issue with a specific food, try avoiding it for a while and see how you feel, or speak to your health practitioner for advice in this area.
Foods and drinks that are gluten and dairy free, low in additives, and mostly low in sugar and caffeine have made a big difference for many of my clients.
Hormone imbalances and anxiety
Hormone imbalances, especially thyroid hormone levels, can give rise to anxiety symptoms. If a person has an under or overactive thyroid, then anxiety can be one of the many symptoms.
By testing only for thyroid levels, many subclinical causes can be missed that could otherwise be helped with natural hormone support.
Often tests that are missed with thyroid are free T3, free T4, reverse T3, checking for antibodies and checking for the nutrients needed for a healthy functioning thyroid such as selenium, B6, B12, iodine, zinc (in balance with copper), iron and tyrosine. Most of these, if low, can elevate anxiety risk.
Please consider thyroid testing with an integrative doctor or naturopath who knows how to interpret sub-clinical or clinical hypothyroidism.
PMS, another type of hormone imbalance, can be accompanied by increased anxiety, so balancing hormones in general can be a helpful support.
If anxiety starts at peri-menopause or menopause then hormones could also be at play.
Blood sugar imbalances can create anxiety
If blood sugar is not stable or too high or especially too low, this will bring to the surface any underlying anxiety that may not have been noticed.
Blood sugar levels are dependent on the types of foods eaten (especially protein and carbohydrates) or how well they are digested, as well as proper probiotic (friendly gut bacteria) levels.
Good protein levels are important for blood sugar balance and anxiety reduction, which you will see in the Amino section below.
Even though proteins are important for anxiety control, consuming too many carbohydrates, particularly sugary ones, can trigger anxiety, especially when your blood sugar level drops after an initial spike from what you ate.
Metabolic disorders such as pyrrole can affect anxiety
Metabolic disorders such as pyrrole (aka pyroluria) are known to lead to an imbalance in specific vitamins and minerals and one of the common symptoms of pyroluria is anxiety. Treating pyrrole disorder will often relieve anxiety.
Pyrrole disorder can be easily tested with a specific urine test and treatment is with B6 and Zinc, but also balanced as needed with other nutrients.
For more information on pyrrole disorder please visit my article What is Pyrrole
Another good reference is the Pyrrole Australia Facebook page I set up to support those with pyrrole.
Because metabolic disorders are so affected by nutrients, the diet for anxiety can help to boost the nutrients needed to support both pyrrole and anxiety.
Heavy metal toxicity and anxiety
Toxicity from heavy metals/minerals can also create imbalances that exacerbate anxiety. Sometimes a basic imbalance in the ratios of non-toxic minerals can aggravate symptoms. Testing of mineral and heavy metals in your body can be done by hair analysis which your health practitioner can organise.
Amino acids to treat anxiety
Amino acids are the building blocks or individual parts of proteins. These are the needed co-factors to produce neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, adrenaline (epinephrine) and nor-adrenaline (nor epinephrine).
Amino acids and neurotransmitters can now be tested with urine samples to see if there are any crucial imbalances contributing to anxiety.
It is very important to ensure you have an adequate supply of amino acids from protein and good digestion. That way you can get the right ingredients which your body can use to help balance your neurotransmitters and hopefully reduce anxiety at the same time.
Gut health and anxiety
Did you know that a huge percentage of your serotonin (the happy & calm neurotransmitter) lies in your digestive tract?
So if you have gut issues, such as leaky gut, SIBO (small intestine bacterial overgrowth), parasites or other digestive issues, then anxiety can be elevated. I have seen many clients’ anxieties disappear by treating conditions such as parasites or leaky gut syndrome.
If you feel that you may have any of these, please visit your preferred health provider for testing and support.
Other factors that can contribute to anxiety
Other factors that can contribute to anxiety are high copper levels, high histamine levels, other health problems and diseases, previous or current substance abuse leading to metabolic imbalances, reactions to medications, stress, caffeine, alcohol and so much more. These are worth considering, particularly if your anxiety does not appear to be situationally based.
However, if you have situational anxiety for specific reasons such as exams, job interview or a first date, then the foods referred to in this article will help. But you may also require further assistance from a good counsellor or psychologist who can give you some practical tools and helpful strategies by working with you through different aspects of your life.
There is no food that can reduce anxiety by itself, however there are foods that can increase nutrients such as B6, B12, Zinc, iron, magnesium, potassium and Omega 3 fats etc. These nutrients support the pathways that can lead to reduced anxiety.
Deficiencies of these nutrients can make anxiety worse, so it makes sense to have adequate levels of these vital nutrients in your body. Nutritious food is a great foundation for anxiety support for you and your family.
It is important to get support from health practitioners when treating anxiety, so you can address any imbalances in nutrients, hormones, neurotransmitters and the gut, along with psychological support as needed.
Important: Before you make changes to your diet, see your medical or health care professional for qualified guidance and do not stop any medications or supplements previously prescribed unless advised otherwise by your medical or health care professional, who may even prescribe extra supplementation.
During the early stages of dietary changes, you may experience symptoms such as fatigue, headaches or body aches, which may occur because your body is detoxifying. However, if you are unsure about a symptom at any time, check immediately with your medical or health care professional.
A lady came to my clinic with anxiety that didn’t appear to be related to any specific event, but it became worse when she was stressed. After some screenings and medical blood tests, we discovered that she had a low grade (sub-optimal) underactive thyroid. Medically she didn’t need treatment, but she was far from feeling her ‘normal’ self.
In similar situations, I often found that diet can make a huge contribution to healing because there are certain nutritional needs to maintain the health of the thyroid. Also it is quite common to have intolerances to certain foods such as those containing gluten and dairy.
I suggested she commence a hypothyroid diet which comprises foods rich in selenium, zinc, B6, B12, tyrosine, Iodine, magnesium (but low in goitrogenic greens such as broccoli and kale) and to remove gluten and dairy products.
I also suggested she go off alcohol and caffeine to allow her body to have a mini-cleanse to support her adrenal glands, as stress on the adrenals can affect all other hormones.
Interestingly, this lady was having a ‘green smoothie’ daily as she had heard that they were ‘good for you’, which of course they certainly can be, but if you have a thyroid condition or sub-optimal thyroid, then this can make things worse.
So we stopped the green smoothies and implemented the thyroid diet. Within two weeks she felt much calmer and had more energy, which meant that she could do more exercise – another factor to help anxiety and thyroid conditions. Exercise can improve serotonin levels, so this was a bonus for her too (serotonin is your happy and calm neurotransmitter).
Later when ‘re-challenging’ foods (going back and testing foods previously omitted from her diet) we found that her main issue was a reaction to gluten, even though she thought she had no previous symptoms of gluten reactivity. The gluten was affecting her immune system and hormones, while alcohol and coffee were giving her anxiety (not always immediately, so it was hard to pick initially).